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Backtrace

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Following a bank job, Macdonald (Matthew Modine) and his fellow bank robbers do a back-woods rendezvous with shady partners in order to split the cash. The only wrinkle is that Macdonald and his fellow thieves already divvied the cash up and buried what they adamantly believe is their share of the $20 million spoils. The shady partners are none too pleased and a shoot-out ensues, seeing Macdonald’s accomplices all violently dispatched and Macdonald himself legging it through dense woods. During this tense escape, Macdonald cops a bullet to the head and thus a permanent bout of amnesia.

Fast forward seven years and Macdonald is a shell of his former-self and something of a man adrift. He’s banged up in maximum security for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, receiving regular visits from Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), a cop who worked his case and lives in hope of him remembering his crimes. One day, a fellow prisoner poised-for-release named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) offers Macdonald a chance to escape, aided by seemingly compromised prison officer Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and prison Nurse Erin (Meadow Williams). Macdonald is smuggled out of the facility, to a deserted location where he’s offered a chance to remember his fragmented past with the help of an experimental new drug that restores memories but also causes intense pain. Submitting to the drug, Macdonald is as hopeful at the prospect of restoring his memories, as his abetters are about locating the stolen money from the bank job he cannot remember. On the trail of the escapee is the world-weary Sykes, who’s partnered with the tetchy Franks (Christopher MacDonald), and the pair endlessly bicker while overseeing the manhunt.

Mike Maples’ screenplay is pedestrian, lacking plausibility or weight. There are some serious logic holes which are helped in no small part by the fairly capable cast, particularly Modine who’s rather excellent as a man without a past. The low-budget nature of the production means that most scenes (save the prison sequences) take place in abandoned forests, desolate roads, vacant houses and empty factories, which leaves the viewer with a weird sense of emptiness and makes the film seem stagey. There are twists (obviously Macdonald is something of an unreliable protagonist) which help keep the plot moving along at a decent speed and Thomas Calderón’s editing coupled with Australian Peter A. Holland’s camera work give the action sequences some much needed pep.

The nature of Stallone’s supporting role means that he probably spent only a few days on the set, but he does alright with the modicum of character that the script presents him with. Stallone wears the part like an old shoe, busting out his ‘crusty old cop’ arsenal of character traits and gravelly-voiced grump, carving out a pretty solid performance on the whole.

Overall, it’s a straight-up VOD B-movie and knows what it needs to do to get the job done.

 
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Metro Exodus

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You remember that scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds? Right in the opening, where Christoph Waltz is talking to that hapless dairy farmer about trying to uncover any Jews hiding in the area. Waltz is amiable, chatty and very decorous right up until the moment he isn’t, and a bunch of nazis are blasting through the floorboards and it’s shocking and scary and you can’t quite believe the tension has finally been expelled? That’s the feeling you get playing Metro Exodus.

Metro Exodus is the third, and possibly final, chapter in the Metro trilogy comprising Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light. The series has always been a criminally underrated slice of post-apocalyptic, first person action and suspense and hopefully with this entry will finally get the recognition it deserves.

The story revolves around Artyom – a robust but disillusioned man who, along with wife Anna, believes there are people and life outside of the claustrophobic confines of the metro system. Without getting into too many details – he’s bloody right and this fact sets him, the missus and a bunch of other characters off on a mostly above ground journey through post-apocalyptic Russia. This is a huge change for the series, and it works well for the most part. As atmospheric as the tunnels were in previous games, the change of location has added a lot more world building to the tale, and gameplay variety has increased.

The game is essentially divided into three large sandboxes that house the main missions, but also lots of side missions and environmental storytelling. The side missions aren’t 100% essential, but are really worth taking on just for the sake of getting a complete sense of the taste of texture of this grim, evocative setting.

It’s at this point we should probably bring it back to the Tarantino comparison, because Metro Exodus is a slow game. Artyom moves slowly, not sluggishly, but definitely with a certain deliberate pace. Most combat is best tackled in a stealthy manner, because death can arrive with little warning. You’ll need to worry about every bullet, because ammo is scarce, and even the ability to craft new ammo isn’t always going to help because the materials necessary to do so are also scarce. The game rewards thoughtful, meticulous forward planning and strategic thinking. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not a strategy game, and when the action kicks off, it’s frenetic and exciting, but the pace between encounters is not going to be for everyone.

Another potential sticking point is a few moments where the game’s a tad rough around the edges. The voice acting is a bit dodgy – utilising the ubiquitous but senseless ‘speaking English in bad Russian accents’ technique that hasn’t died yet for some reason – and there are minor bugs here and there, with a couple of hard crashes along the way. This is by no means everpresent or game-ruining, and will probably be fixed in patches, but it’s noticeable. There’s a slight clunkiness to some of the movement too, with the melee attack in particular feeling strangely weightless and clumsy. Still and all, these are minor issues when set against everything that works in this sprawling, ambitious tale.

Metro Exodus is engaging, tense and occasionally frustrating, but always compelling. Beset by occasional quirks of its lower-than-blockbuster budget it nonetheless delivers a freight train worth of excitement and never flies off the rails. For those interested in a thoughtful, deliberately-paced thriller with Tarantino-esque explosions of shocking violence, intelligent world building and genuinely scary monsters Metro Exodus might just be the train to board

 
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Zero-Point

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Comprising of four episodes that are each approximately five minutes long, the political animated web-series Zero-Point wastes no time ostensibly exposing the injustices experienced by Indigenous Australians beneath the backdrop of a society policed by superheroes.

The series focuses on Indigenous Superhero Zero Point (Mark Coles Smith), who is part of a government superhero crime fighting syndicate, A.F.E.C.O (Australian Federal Extra-Normal Civil Operatives), that is determined to uncover and take down a mysterious villain, Samson (Steven Oliver), who is determined to reassert sovereignty.

Zero-Point is then embroiled in a mystery to discover what happened to his father, with the show able to touch on topical Indigenous issues including white-patriotism, the stolen generation, substance abuse, and racism experienced in the judicial system.

All the more impressive due to the short length of each episode, characters are fleshed out to the extent that the audience can rationalise and understand their motivations, with enough mystery left should there be a second season.

There is a distinctly rigid style to the animation that resembles an ‘80s cartoon, that when combined with the action scenes elevate the story to highlight Indigenous Australian struggles.

Zero-Point, as was the case for Black Panther, uses the confines of a superhero story to highlight the inequality felt by Indigenous Australians and is done so with a clear agenda that never feels overbearing.

https://zero-point.tv/

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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Kingdom Hearts 3

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Video games are weird, it’s just a fact. This is a medium in which one of the most successful iterations involves a heroic Italian plumber who jumps on evil mushrooms and rescues a princess from a spiky turtle. And another all-time classic is about an amphetamine addicted* hedgehog who attempts to acquire wealth and stay on the gear, running endlessly around diabolical mazes, grinning like a lunatic. The point is, games are so ubiquitously strange that it takes a truly bizarre entry to make one sit back and say: “Crikey, this is some weird shit!”

Kingdom Hearts III is such a game.

The plot is a byzantine nightmare, more convoluted than a thousand Inceptions, but the short hand is: a bunch of characters from Disney and Square Enix properties are on an adventure through various worlds from video games and movies to save the universe. Speaking in practical terms, that means a trio of heroes comprising Sora (young boy with silly hair and a keyblade), Donald Duck (sentient duck with a speech impediment, prone to rage) and Goofy (a creature we still don’t understand and perhaps never will) travel to far off lands to “discover the power of waking”. Congratulations if you understood the previous sentence, you’re absolutely in the minority.

The action plays out as a mixture of exploration, upgrading weapons and gear and combat loops, that are bright and sparkly and fun. You’ll spend most battles mashing the attack button, but eventually other combat moves unlock, including the inexplicable ability to use Disney theme park rides as weapons. You’ll do this, by the way, while interacting with all manner of characters from Disney and Pixar flicks including Frozen, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and even Pirates of Caribbean (!?), amongst others.

The problem with Kingdom Hearts III isn’t the zany, surreal nutbaggery, it’s the ghastly writing and voice acting. Every line reading feels about a second too slow, with awkward Lynchian pauses between each leaden slab of mawkish word salad. Combined with the distracting decision to have the characters parrot some variation of “believe in yourself” every fifteen bloody minutes and it’s hard to escape the cloying tweeness. Still, there is an odd charm to Kingdom Hearts III at times. It’s a bit like watching a small child smacking together toys in a bathtub, hopped up on a sippy cup full of red cordial, unconcerned about things like logic and reason. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and you won’t always be in the mood for it, but there’s an undeniable appeal here for those willing to brave the eccentricities.

Although, and it bears repeating, crikey this is some weird shit.

*probably

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is an unstable, world-weary ex-Navy Seal who tracks US’s most-wanted and terrorist targets under the auspices of CIA outsourcing. His handler for the CIA, Leigh (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) offers him a job, despite the apparent PTSD Jack’s been suffering and the other mental issues that assail him.

He’s dispatched to London (on what sounds like the premise to a Mission: Impossible film) in order to take down a rogue CIA operative named McKnight (Elliot Cowan) before he procures a nuke from Russian gangsters.

Jack’s assigned a team, in the form of operatives-for-hire Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Once in London, the group meet CIA compatriot Deighton (Joseph Millson) and it’s Deighton’s wobbly morality and possible connection to McKnight and his ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-about-to-cross-everyone’ persona that leads to more violent shenanigans across London, in pursuit of McKnight and the warheads he’s trying to snarf.

There are double (and triple) crosses aplenty as Jack and Deighton continually lock horns and tread the well-worn path of bromance turned sour grapes.

It’s hardly an original format: the battle-weary warrior, the ‘Ronin’ looking for an end to the pain of existence. We get it. Writer/Director Matthew Hope is a dab hand at directing low-budget action sequences and on that front, if shoot-outs are your bag then there’s a fair bit of that to enjoy here. Other than applauding the filmmakers for wringing every drop from an all-too-obviously small budget, there’s little else to recommend this, except the sharply acidic William Fichtner, a hardened veteran of Hollywood supporting roles; he’s incapable of being anything less than enjoyable. As the lead, Gibson is unabashedly riding his surname’s coat tails (and his physical similarity to his dad) but physically, he’s got the goods, it’s just the underwritten script that leaves him – and the rest of the cast – twisting in the wind.

Overall, the fight choreography and action sequences are deftly executed but the brutally ‘by-the-numbers’ scripting, coupled with a considerable lack of character depth or humour, just annihilates any joy that could be derived from the film.

 
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The Cry

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Compelling four-part television drama mini-series The Cry will shock and enthral viewers.

Based on the novel by Australian author Helen FitzGerald, viewers will be on the edge of their seat watching this drama unfold. Over six-million people tuned into watch the show when it premiered on BBC One last year. The popular series also attracted 10 million plus plays via BBCs i-player.

The British-Australian co-production was filmed across the two continents (Glasgow and Melbourne) and features a strong cast – including Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake, Safe Harbour), Asher Keddie, Alex Dimitriades and Jenna Coleman (Dr Who, Victoria) – each delivering powerful and convincingly-played emotive performances.

Adapted by Jacquelin Perske (Love My Way, Seven Types of Ambiguity), The Cry follows the lives of a young couple, Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and her husband Alistair (Ewen Leslie). Joanna and Alistair travel with their baby from Scotland to Australia to see Alistair’s mother, and to fight for custody of Alistair’s daughter against his Australian ex-wife Alexandra (Asher Keddie). Almost as soon as they arrive in rural Victoria, every parent’s worst nightmare is brought to life when their four-month old baby boy Noah goes missing. The already fragile relationship between the young couple quickly disintegrates as the public scrutiny intensifies and the mystery deepens.

There are echoes of little Madeleine McCann and Azaria Chamberlain disappearances and while the abduction of baby Noah is the catalyst and what drives this story, it’s the characters that provide the intrigue. The lines of truth and manipulation are blurred in this plot-twisting drama where everyone is a suspect.

Viewers will slowly despise Leslie’s character, who is smug, patronising and a completely unhelpful new father. “He earns the money; he wears the earplugs” Joanna justifies, explaining why Alistair never wakes to help with Noah’s night-time feedings.

Keddie is brilliant as the ex-wife to Leslie but it’s Coleman who excels, unravelling before our eyes. The English actress does not hide her feelings of loss, anger or confusion. She’s completely relatable as a struggling mother and viewers will feel her pain during the flight to Australia scene as she repetitively walks up and down the aisle trying to quieten her screaming baby and ignore the look of distain from fellow passengers. This intelligent drama provides a harsh view of motherhood at its most harrowing.

The Cry will not be relaxing Sunday night viewing, but audiences will find it grippingly addictive.

 
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Resident Evil 2

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Resident Evil 2, the game, was first released in 1998 and it blew audiences away. Although the previous installment had successfully introduced the concept of “survival horror” in 1996, part two honed the formula to a razor’s edge, delivering an experience that was scary, smart and absolutely absorbing. For those of us old enough to have been alive in that era, RE2 was a staggering achievement and managed to penetrate the ubiquitous haze of bong smoke and neglect to make an indelible impact on young psyches.

That being said, 1998 was a long-arse time ago, and time is least kind to video games. As the Resident Evil series lurched onwards it left those early entries behind, peaking recently with the somewhat divisive-but-brilliant Resident Evil VII: Biohazard (https://www.filmink.com.au/reviews/resident-evil-vii-biohazard/) which was a welcome return to pure survival horror. Still, when Capcom announced its Resident Evil 2 remaster it was hard not to get excited – but is it possible to twice catch horrific lightning in a bottle?

One thing we should get out of the way is that this isn’t an HD remaster but rather a full remake. The original RE2 featured static shots, clunky controls and graphics that were spectacular at the time but now look retina-damagingly awful. Although the game has been remastered for various systems over the years, presentation-wise it’s always looked… quaint. 2019’s Resident Evil 2 rebuilds the game from the ground up, putting the perspective in the RE4 over-the-shoulder view with a continuous camera that follows you around, not breaking for loading screens between every area. This is a welcome addition and makes the game play as smooth and immersive as your (lying) memories of the original.

Add to that, graphics as sharp and slick as any other modern release, replete with drippy, oozing zombies, genuinely scary, toothy monsters and character animations that make you actually feel for the other human characters – particularly when so many of them are viciously dispatched.

Actually, we’d be remiss not to mention the zombies at this point. In 1998, zombies seemed an amazingly fresh foe, having barely penetrated the cultural zeitgeist. In 2019, they’re basically a default option for most media, so how to make them scary again? RE2 adds a sense of unpredictability to the mix. The only way to permanently dispatch these ambulatory corpses is by destroying the head. You can do this using heavy weapons or grenades, however the zombies far outnumber your bullets so you simply don’t have the resources to kill them all. Therefore, you’ll need to leave some of the ghastly creatures lying around as potential jump scares, because they might rise at any moment (even if you’ve plugged ten rounds into their slack-jawed skulls) which adds a level of tension to an already scary game. See, Resident Evil 2 isn’t about killing all the monsters, it’s about surviving, solving the puzzles and escaping. It’s Capcom’s classic formula of puzzle solving under duress and it is edge-of-your-seat stuff, all the way through.

In 2019, video games pride themselves on being massive; the idea that more is more. Resident Evil 2 believes that to be a crock of shit, providing four of five medium sized areas to explore but you’ll know them like the back of your hand by the time the credits roll. The game also employs a map that really helps navigation, showing areas in red until you’ve solved the puzzles and collected all the loot in that area – whereupon it turns blue. This is a wonderful addition but much needed, especially as the game progresses and the character known as the Tyrant steps into view, providing a genuinely scary, seemingly invincible foe who dogs your steps like the STDemon from It Follows, and leaps out when you least expect it.

In terms of negatives, RE2 can be frustrating on occasion, particularly during boss fights where the lack of a dodge button would have been appreciated. And certainly, for some folks, the Tyrant is going to be a massive pain in the arse – although he does force you to think on your feet, which can be exhilarating. These are minor quibbles, however, in an overall experience that somehow keeps what was great about the original intact, while updating some of the wonkier aspects, like puzzles, voice acting and overall presentation.

Ultimately, Resident Evil 2 (2019) is everything a video game remake should be. It’s absolutely stunning to look at and a tense joy to play, paying nostalgic homage while improving nearly every aspect of the original. It’s scary, smart and absolutely absorbing – just like it was back in hazy 1998 – but with added levels of gore and unpredictability that will keep even series veterans on their toes. If you’ve never experienced the stories of Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield as they explore a bizarre, avant garde police station in the middle of zombie-infested Racoon City, now is absolutely the best time to do so. And hell, even if you have, 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake is the best ever version of that iconic story.

 
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Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown

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Plane combat games are something of a rarity in this wretched year of 2019. Back in the olden days, when the PlayStation or PS2 reigned supreme in the lounge rooms of many, they were a dime a dozen with the best contender being the Ace Combat series. This frequently bizarre mix of unnecessarily convoluted storytelling paired with surprisingly detailed plane combat was a pleasing bit of airborne escapism. Then, for some reason, much like the western in cinema – the genre fell out of favour. Happily, it appears that the dark flightless time is over, as Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is here and it’s pretty bloody good, for the most part.

Ace Combat 7 is set in the same alternate earth as the previous games in the series and follows on from the events of Ace Combat 4 and 5. If you can’t remember those events, don’t stress, as the war between Erusea and Usea is just as overcooked and daft as previous entries and you can, and probably should, take it with several heaping handfuls of salt. In short, war has broken out and you, “Trigger”, will need to put missiles aplenty into your enemies. The story is actually truly bizarre, even by Ace Combat standards, because the character you play is a total non event until about halfway through the game and a far more interesting character – imprisoned mechanic Avril Mead – is the one narrating the shenanigans… and yet you can’t play as her. It’s a bizarre, and very clunky, storytelling device that doesn’t really work. However, that’s not the draw here.

What really matters in Ace Combat 7 is what happens in the air and for the most part the game is a triumph of giddy dog fights, bombing runs and set pieces set in vicious storms. It’s actually quite a tough game all told, with some missions featuring ridiculously short timers and insta-fail objectives that may have you punching the couch in frustration (sorry, couch). However, if you listen carefully to the mission objectives, and make sure you have a decent variety of planes taken from the unlockable trees, you should eventually triumph over the game’s 20 missions.

The game also features a robust VR mode and an online multiplayer mode, which is a nice value add and sure to have VR owners dusting off their tech. Ultimately, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown is more of the same from the series, for good and ill. It’s fast-paced, frenetic, frustrating and full of fun – if you can get past the baffling narrative conceits and occasionally enraging difficulty spikes. And hell, it’s been a while since you’ve taken to the skies so fire up and go right into the danger zone!

 
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Stay Human

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With the world regularly looking like it’s going down the toilet, how do we stay positive? That – though asked in far more eloquent words – is the question at the centre of this absorbing documentary.

Michael Franti, best known for his lyrical and musical work with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, fronts his own story, exploring what it means to be human, and how we can hold on to it in a complicated and unpredictable reality.

Franti takes the audience on a journey through his songs and creative processes and plays them alongside the inspiring tales of people he’s met throughout his career. These are people such as Robin Lim, a midwife who founded special birthing centres in the Philippines following the devastating effect of typhoons. She pinpoints the pain of living in the modern world as originating in how we are born, with the trauma of being surgically removed from the parent a hurt that takes many years to recover from.

The central fight for staying human is, in Franti’s view, the battle between cynicism and optimism. Steve and Hope Dezember are a couple with an integral role in the film, displaying this optimism and love of life, no matter what the circumstances. The pair’s enduring love is reflected in Hope’s commitment to her partner after he developed a diagnosis of the neurodegenrative disease ALS. The challenges faced by the couple, and their strength in enjoying every part of life, is captured beautifully, and served as a starting point for the film project itself.

A love for the whole world, and how humanity can help treat it better, is reflected in the story of Arief Rabik, a Balinese environmental scientist who has come up with an ingenious way of processing bamboo to reduce deforestation.

Franti also travels to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he meets two young people, Busisiwwe Vazi and Sive Mazinyo, who have inspired their local community through the power of music and education.

Franti’s own difficulties, including troubles with depression and a complicated relationship with his father and history as an adopted child, are movingly addressed. His passion and constant search for inspiring vision is at the beating heart of this powerful documentary, that shows how and why humans can remain engaged with life.